Time has largely erased Farsi from my memory. But when I heard the first reports of demonstrators chanting “Death to America” while attacking our embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019, “Marg bar Amrika” popped immediately into my head. As did a prayer for the safety of our people.
The Iraqis would be speaking Arabic, but the message to the staff inside the Baghdad embassy would be the same as it was for us in Tehran in November 1979: We want you dead.
Subsequent reports made clear that the U.S. government had learned some lessons from the Iran hostage crisis. Unlike 1979, the Baghdad embassy was adequately fortified and guarded. The attack caused property damage but nothing more.
Another key difference was swift retaliation: the drone strike on Iranian revolutionary guard commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was believed to have planned the Baghdad attack, and to be actively preparing additional actions against our diplomats and soldiers. Importantly, the operation was not on Iranian soil, which would probably have forced a stronger response.
The capture of American diplomats made the Iran crisis fundamentally different from the Baghdad situation. U.S. responses had to be measured against the possibility of harm to the hostages. Nevertheless, I believe President Carter made a fundamental error when he told the Iranians that his overarching concern was hostage safety. This was perceived as weakness, as permission to hold our people for as long as they remained useful. And useful they were, as a tool to help Ayatollah Khomeini transform Iran into the Islamic republic it is today.
It is impossible to know whether a more aggressive response, including military action, would have led to a better outcome. The hostages were released 444 days later, as President Reagan took office. Was this because Khomeini detested Carter or feared Reagan? We don’t know. But there are reasons to think that the strong response to the Baghdad attack was appropriate.
First, there is the matter of Soleimani himself. Many Iranians saw him as a good man. He came to prominence defending Iran against the unprovoked Iraqi invasion that began the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. As commander of the elite Quds force, he helped defeat ISIS.
Iranians, and many Iraqis, are Shiites, a minority within Islam. ISIS, a Sunni sect that considers Shiites to be heretics, is detested by Iranians. Equally important is what Soleimani did not do. He didn’t order the shooting of protesters in the streets, something that revolutionary guard units have done, including recently.
Soleimani the terror-master will soon be replaced. Soleimani the national hero, the upright defender of Iran and Shiites everywhere, is irreplaceable. A regime that is increasingly seen by Iranians as repressive and corrupt will miss the legitimacy that he brought it. The initial outcry over his perceived martyrdom may help the mullahs, but over time his absence will hurt more. That is a good thing.
Second, there may be practical consequences for Iranian behavior. The missiles launched against U.S. and Iraqi troops were almost certainly symbolic, allowing the mullahs to claim retribution while not forcing President Trump’s hand.
I have no expectation that Iranian support for terrorism will diminish. Marg bar Amrika isn’t just a chant: It is a policy. At worst, we are where we were before; at best, we have earned some credibility that may be useful in the future.
And somewhere in all of this, it is worth noting that justice has been served.
In the 40 years since the Iran hostage crisis, the U.S. has tried a variety of approaches to Tehran. None has worked. The Obama administration was the most conciliatory, but even with the generous nuclear accord, there was no progress on the fundamentals of our relationship. Last year, Trump offered to meet the Iranian leader without preconditions. No response.
Another Farsi word I remember is shatan, satan. America is the great Satan. You don’t sit down with Satan. Until Iran can move past this, all we can do is work with allies in the region and elsewhere to contain Iranian trouble-making.
From that perspective, it is useful that, when an Iranian terrorist hears a noise overhead, he will experience at least a moment’s fear.
Iranians are a hospitable people with an ancient and honorable civilization that long predates Islam. For the last 40 years, they have been ruled by adherents of a particularly vicious version of Islam, one that is not consistent with Iran’s underlying culture. Sooner or later, as always in the past, the real Iran will reveal itself.
— Mark Lijek is a retired member of the Foreign Service who was among six Americans, including his wife, who escaped capture during the 1979 attack of the U.S. Embassy in Iran that led to the hostage crisis of 1979-81. The story of their escape was the subject of the 2012 film “Argo.” The Lijeks live in Anacortes.